Monday, October 18, 2010

Don't Look Back (portion Vayera)

When asked the secret of his legendary longevity and success, the great Negro League pitcher and home-spun sage Satchel Paige advised, “Don’t look back—something may be gaining on you.” His wisdom is both profound and obvious. We can neither change the past nor predict the future; all we ever really have is the current moment.

Yet who has not succumbed to the temptation to look back? As William Faulkner once noted, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t really even past.” Our history often pursues us. Sometimes it plays a positive role in our lives, offering us instructive lessons. Sometimes it takes the form of harmless nostalgia. And sometimes the pull of the past can be devastating.

In this week’s portion, Vayera, God destroys the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before raining down fire and brimstone, God sends angels into Sodom to rescue Abraham’s nephew Lot and his wife and daughters. The angels warn, “Do not look back, lest you be swept away.” Lot’s wife defies their admonition and immediately turns into a pillar of salt.

Why does she look back—and why is she transformed into salt? As usual, our Sages offer varying interpretations. In their debate over the fate of Lot’s wife, they indirectly address the question of why we, too, frequently find it so difficult to break with the past.

Rashi points to salt’s essential quality as a preservative. Just as salt prevents things (like food) from changing, so did Lot’s wife sin through her inability to change, to separate herself from the immorality of the surrounding culture. By contrast, Nahmanides is more generous in his appraisal. His commentary suggests that Lot’s wife struggled to leave Sodom because she had so many friends and family members who remained there. He identifies salt with the tears she must have shed for the loved ones that she would never see again.

Why are we drawn back into the past? Sometimes we prefer our well-established and deeply ensconced routines to new challenges, even when we recognize the necessity of change. Other times, we are compelled by the legitimate pull of old and beloved ties. And often it is a complicated combination of these and many other factors.

This week, try thinking seriously about your past and your attitude toward it. When is it helpful to look back? When—as suggested by Satchel Paige and the story of Lot’s wife—is it harmful? How do we balance our tradition’s call to be present to the moment with its emphasis on communal memory? When do we need to draw upon the metaphor of salt’s preservative qualities? And when should we dry our tears and fix our gaze straight ahead?

May your week bring insights, answers, and an abundance of good questions.

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